Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic review *****

Death of a Salesman

Young Vic, 17th May 2019

For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.

  • Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
  • The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
  • Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
  • Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
  • The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
  • Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.

However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.

And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.

Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.

Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.

The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).

Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.

With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.

His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.

And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen

There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.

Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.

The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.

Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.

Girl From the North Country review ****

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Girl From the North Country

The Old Vic, 20th September 2017

(Girl From the North Country is transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre from 29th Dec 2017 through to 24th Mar 2018)

I am afraid there is a bit of a rant coming. If the Old Vic is going to fill matinee performances with teenage schoolkids can it please find a way to get them to shut up during the performance. I can just about deal with the Old Vic’s kettle-ing of the audience into the tiny foyer, the toilet squeezes (and I am a bloke – the ladies queue looks worse), the sometimes loose productions let down by under-rehearsal, the leg-room in parts of the Lilian Baylis Circle, the sound quality in parts of the stalls and the occasionally grasping approach to interval scheduling. Why? Because it is the Old Vic, a commercial theatre with no subsidy that does its level best to bring together the best creatives with classic plays and important new works. And it is a big space to fill. And, to be fair, they are doing something about the layout.

Now pitching up at matinees here and at the Young Vic is going to mean schoolkids. And by and large that is a brilliant thing. Watching some young-uns relax into the Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Night Dream earlier in the year was a joy to behold. A bit of cacophony before the curtain rise, some fidgeting, the odd screen flicker, maybe even one or two whispers is normally a fair exchange for the audible gasps or whoops when something really exciting happens on stage. But what I could not stomach here was a trio of show-offs pointedly stage-whispering throughout. Too loud and frequent to ignore. Couldn’t find a teacher/TA to gently vent fury so ended up seething.

And thus my journey to grumpy old man is complete.

Anyway it meant that my enjoyment of Girl From the North Country was compromised. Which is a shame. Because as the remaining full houses and official and audience reviews suggest, it is very very good. I went with the SO as a replacement for BUD, who I had attempted to rope in, knowing full well that he would be enmeshed instead in a world of finance. Now the SO is famed in our house for her dislike of “musical theatre” and for eschewing any information in advance about what she will be seeing in the theatre. So having failed to gauge any reaction during the first half from her usual Sphinx-like gaze (and having myself been focused on the stage itself whilst trying to zone out the offending youths) I waited with bated breath for her verdict. “It is good – I am enjoying it”. I was tempted to insert the word “really” before “good” or “enjoying” in the previous sentence but that would imply a level of rapture that the SO rarely attains. in fact in the last 5 years of theatre going only The Ferryman, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Hytner’s NT Othello claimed a “really” good accolade.

Anyway the point is that this play with music really works. It is no surprise that writer Conor McPherson’s text is a delight. This is the man who delights in story-telling from a theatrical culture that does likewise. The setting, a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota (the birth-place of Bob Dylan) in 1934 as the US is emerging from the Great Depression, lends itself perfectly to this tableau of interweaving narratives. The characters are one rung up from the completely dispossessed, and the Crash and the ensuing credit collapse and failed harvests are swinging into the rear view mirror, but these characters still have next to nothing and are scraping around for the means to live.

Sorry another aside. If you ever get a chance read the novel Duluth by Gore Vidal which uses the city as a starting point for a brilliantly structured flight of fancy with layers of meaning and sharp satire. As usual Mr Vidal was decades ahead of the zeitgeist. And now I see there is a revival of his play, The Best Man, about to tour. I hope the production does it justice as the text (and film adaptation with Henry Fonda in the lead) shows a play with real relevance to US politics today, (though at the time of writing Vidal’s acerbic wit was aimed at Nixon, the Kennedys and McCarthy). That nice Martin Shaw will take the lead role and Simon Evans will direct (a wise choice given his recent Arturo Ui at the Donmar). I would definitely gives this a viewing.

Anyway back to the matter in hand. Now there is a big Bob Dylan shaped whole in my life. I have tried half-heartedly to fill it but have never really been persuaded. Seeing and hearing this might have changed my mind, but if it eventually doesn’t that is no judgement on the 20 songs here. For in the context of the production the music and lyrics were a perfect fit. There is no particular attempt to make lyrics echo plot or vice versa. This is a play with songs (some partial, some reprised and most realised with standing microphones) and not a musical. No jazz hands, fisting clenching or “woe is me” ballads. Just a procession of interludes where one or more of the characters plunder Mr Dylan’s back catalogue (across the decades so not just the obvious early folk-y/bluegrass-y stuff) accompanied by a band playing only instruments of the Depression years period. (Hats off to musicians, Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard and Don Richardson). The arrangements from Simon Hale are very satisfying, the lyrics are self-evidently beautiful and the performances pitch perfect (emotionally I mean – obviously some of the cast are better singers than others). Particular favourites for me were Slow Train, Jokerman, Hurricane, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Make You Feel My Love. And the diminutive Shirley Henderson belting out Like a Rolling Stone.

Mr McPherson, who directs here as well, an eminently sensible decision given the structure of the work, lets the characters emerge with a sparse but emotionally affecting text. The whole play is only just over a couple of hours. Strip out the music and maybe there is 90 minutes of drama. Yet there are 13 named characters. We get to know all of them and their stories though. That alone is a remarkable achievement.

Ciaran Hinds plays the owner of the guesthouse Nick Laine. A big man whose dreams were crushed a long time ago. Last time we saw Mr Hinds he was a curiously lifeless Claudius in the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Here though he is what he should be. Wife Elizabeth has long since retreated into her own world but her delusions do not stop her seeing the essence of what is going on around her. Shirley Henderson (whom I adore) is maybe a tiny bit over the top but her unravelled self works as metaphor for America in these years. Son Gene, played by telly star, Sam Reid yearns to write but likes the whisky a bit much. Again a stock character, true, but not a stereotype. Adopted daughter Marianne, played by Sheila Atim, is black and hugs the guest-house for fear of attack. Nick would like to marry her off to elderly shop-owner Mr Perry (Jim Norton) but she resists, fearing a life of unhappiness and frustration. Katherine Draper (the excellent Claudia Jolly) is passing through and has hopes of an inheritance which will let her set up a business with Nick with whom she is having an affair. Yet Nick will never leave Elizabeth and, anyway, Katherine’s financial salvation vanishes into thin air.

A couple of cons then crash the guesthouse, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene who I need to keep tabs on) a good man, an ex-boxer, who woos Marianne, and “Reverend” Meadows, (a suitably sly Michael Schaeffer), a self-styled preacher and bible seller, who is up to no good. We are also joined by the bankrupt and broken Burke family (moving performances from Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) whose son Elias (Jack Shalloo) has an intellectual disability. And to top it off we have the mighty Ron Cook as Dr Walker, who acts as narrator to add context, Mrs Nielsen (Debbie Kurup) and a fine ensemble (Kirsty Malpass, Tome Peters, Karl Queensborough) to add depth to the chorus.¬†Overall all then¬†a busy stage but the scene changes were deftly handled.

Now if I had a small misgiving, (aside from the babbling youth), it would be that the structure and length of the play constrains any real plot development. As I say we get to “know” these characters and understand their dreams and frustrations but, all up, only a few things actually happen. No matter given the sublime spell that the dialogue, music and lyrics help to create, but I think this could actually have done with being a little longer (a rare request from the Tourist) to expand the stories of the Laine and Burke families in particular, and maybe heighten the drama. I also think that when this is revived, (the rest of the run is sold out I think), as it surely will be, an outdoor setting, on a summer’s evening, might turn it into magic.

Anyway,whilst maybe not quite up there with Mr McPherson’s The Weir on the theatrical bucket list, this is a play with music that should be seen. Even, or maybe especially, if you are not a Dylan devotee. Remember it was the recalcitrant Nobel Prize winner who approached Mr McPherson and attached no strings to the project. Clearly he knew that justice would be done to his poetry (though it seems the old curmudgeon hasn’t seen it yet).